The notoriously violent MS-13 street gang, known for slashing victims to death with knives and machetes, is reviving its brutal brand of violence to reassert its dominance in the Washington metropolitan area — with authorities linking at least eight homicides in Virginia and Maryland over the past year to the gang.
The recent uptick in violence can be traced to a failed gang truce in El Salvador and, in part, to a surge of unaccompanied Central American children who entered the United States last year to flee violence at home, according to gang analysts.
There is concern over the degree to which MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, has exploited an immigration policy that over the past two years has allowed waves of migrant children to enter the United States.
In one of the eight recent killings with MS-13 ties, three young men were charged in connection with the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old in Loudoun County, Virginia. They were identified as having entered the United States illegally in 2013 as unaccompanied children who later skipped immigration hearings.
Analysts in gang intervention say scores of recently arrived Central American children make prime recruiting targets for established gangs in the region.
“They are certainly susceptible. They are new, they have very little family, they don’t know the language very well,” said Fairfax County gang prevention coordinator Ed Ryan. “They are looking for someone who looks like them, talks like them.”
Renewed concern about the gang comes as one of the largest trials of MS-13 members in Northern Virginia begins this week, with 13 men facing charges related to three gruesome killings and an attempted murder of people who either left the gang, stood up to its members or were suspected of providing information about the gang’s activities to law enforcement.
Even before the most recent migrant influx to the region, authorities said, MS-13 violence tended to flare up in cycles.
In Maryland, prosecutors oversaw a series of cases in the mid-2000s that resulted in prison sentences for dozens of high-level gang leaders.
“That did effectively cut the head off the gang,” said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.
In subsequent years, the violent assaults and killings associated with the gang subsided as remaining members instead focused on the sex trade, recruiting girls and running brothels in the region. A gang truce brokered in El Salvador in 2012 helped keep the peace as well.
But the truce has since collapsed, sending homicide rates skyrocketing in the Central American country where many top gang leaders live and dictate orders to cliques operating in the United States.
Graphic photos expected
“What we are beginning to see is an attempt to re-establish themselves as the preeminent gang in the Maryland area,” Mr. McCarthy said. “They are actively trying to build their numbers again. That is based on direction they are receiving from outside the U.S.”
In January, the indictment of 56 MS-13 members in Boston revealed a renewed focus on snuffing out rival gangs.
The federal indictment states that East Coast MS-13 leaders held a regional summit in December in Richmond, Virginia, where they “told the leaders that their cliques needed to be more active in killing rival gang members.”
“The activities of many of the MS-13 members in the United States are reflective of the current state of the gang in El Salvador,” Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the FBI’s Washington field office, said in a statement on the gang’s activity in the region. “In the past few years in El Salvador, there has been an increase in gang-related violence and criminal activities overseas.”
The 13 defendants heading to federal court in Virginia this week are accused of carrying out killings in 2013 and 2014 as part of an effort to maintain or increase the gang’s power in the area.
Little has been disclosed publicly about the crimes with which the men are charged — three murders and one attempted murder — since a nine-count criminal indictment against them was announced in October 2014. Scores of court records in the case remain under seal, in part because of concern about retaliation against witnesses and cooperators.
But documents filed by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia and defense attorneys provide a partial accounting of a series of horrific crimes, in which at least one of the victims met a particularly gruesome end.
Crime scene photos from the three homicides that are expected to be used at trial include images of “severed body parts and partially decomposed corpses,” according to one court filing made by the attorney for defendant Pedro Anthony Romero Cruz, whom prosecutors describe as the leader of the Park View Locos Salvatruchas gang.
Three dead, 13 defendants
In two of the homicides in Fairfax County — the killings of Gerson Adoni Martinez Aguilar and Nelson Omar Quintanilla Trujillo — local police declined to even issue press releases about the slayings. A Fairfax police spokeswoman said the FBI took over the investigation immediately after the bodies were found.
Nothing more has been disclosed publicly about Aguilar’s death, except that he was killed on March 29, 2014.
Omar DeJesus Castillo, Douglas Duran Cerritos, Alvin Gaitan Benitez, Christian Lemus Cerna, Araely Santiago Villanueva, Manuel Ernesto Paiz Guevara and Jose Del Cid are all charged with murder in connection with his death.
Court documents indicate that gang members killed Trujillo because they believed he was a government informant. A nine-count criminal indictment that accuses Jose Lopez Torres, Juan Carlos Marquez Ayala, Mr. Castillo and Mr. Cerritos of the Oct. 7, 2013, homicide, states that Trujillo’s body was later reburied to conceal the crime.
What is unclear is whether the gang members believed Trujillo was the confidential informant who alerted authorities just days earlier about a planned killing.
On orders Mr. Cruz allegedly gave from inside the Powhatan Correctional Center, near Richmond, gang members planned to kill a former member. Members including Mr. Torres and Jaime Rosales Villegas traveled to Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge on Oct. 1, 2013, with a sawed-off shotgun and two machetes, court documents state. But law enforcement officials were tipped off about the planned killing by an informant and intercepted the gang members on their way to the school.
According to court documents, the June 2014 fatal shooting of Julio Urrutia in Alexandria started as an argument with some of the MS-13 gang members. The documents state that several men, including Mr. Del Cid and Genaro Sen Garcia, walked past Urrutia on the sidewalk and began to harass him and make references to their gang. The group left but returned about 10 minutes later. One of the men swung at Urrutia, apparently because he told the men “that he wasn’t in a gang and they should respect him and his friends,” documents say.
At that point, prosecutors said, Jesus Alejandro Chavez pulled out a gun and shot Urrutia in the face.
Despite attempts by defense attorneys to separate the charges, all 13 defendants will be tried together in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia — making for a long and complicated trial.
Jury selection began Monday in the case, with opening arguments expected later this week. The trial could last up to eight weeks.